PNOY’s environment challenge
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
It is almost two weeks now since President Benigno Simeon “Nonoy” Aquino III took his oath of office as the 15th President of the Republic of the Philippines. I was one of the millions all over the world who watched his historic inauguration in television, and intensely listened on his inaugural speech, waiting for him to include environment and natural resources management as one of his priority concerns. I found his speech very sincere, meaningful, simple, and interesting but I am quite dismayed that he did not mention specifically anything on environment. But just the same, I am giving Aquino, who prefers to be called PNoy, the benefit of the doubt that what he meant by good governance will include good governance on environment and natural resources management.
The speculation that PNoy will retain Horacio Ramos as the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources did not materialize. Several conservation organizations raised opposition to the retention of Ramos as the DENR Secretary because of the perception that he is biased for the mining industry, considering that he was formerly the director of the Mines and Geo-Sciences Bureau. A day before his inauguration, PNoy named Ramon Paje as the new DENR chief. Paje holds a career position of undersecretary in the regular list of DENR personnel.
The designation of Paje is believed to be temporary in nature, as there are reports that defeated senatorial aspirant, Neric Acosta,
will take over the environment portfolio after the one-year ban for the appointment in government posts of candidates who were not successful during the last elections. Paje is the first professional forester who was appointed as the DENR Secretary after the EDSA People’s Revolution in 1986. Some are also skeptical about Paje because he did not show anything spectacular in addressing various environmental issues while serving as the DENR Undersecretary.
What remains to be a major challenge to the Aquino administration is the effective implementation of the existing environment and natural resources laws and regulations. It should be noted that the Philippines is probably one of the countries in the world with numerous laws on environment, and yet the current situation doesn’t show positive indicators that these rules are properly implemented. The atmosphere down to the lowest level of our terrestrial seas is covered with regulations but unfortunately we continue to witness how the state of our environment has deteriorated through the years.
The foremost concern that needs to be attended is the protection of the remaining natural forest, which is barely a million hectares left throughout the country, when in fact more than 21% of the Philippines’ estimated 300,000 square-kilometer land area is supposedly classified as timberland. The remaining forests are still largely threatened by logging, slash-and-burn farming, and conversion into other land uses. In a recent media interview, Paje admitted that illegal logging is still happening, specifically in Isabela, Cagayan and Aurora provinces, but one may think why this is not, being addressed and why are perpetrators not prosecuted.
One weakness in forest management is the continuing reliance to Presidential Decree 705 as the main forestry policy framework, which was enacted during the time of President Ferdinand Marcos in the 70’s. This forest policy was framed when logging was still a prime source of the government’s revenue but it is no longer relevant today. Efforts to amend PD 705 failed because of the intensive lobbying of the logging and other wood-based industries.
There are two major schools of thought on forest management: the imposition of a total commercial logging ban or the selective logging ban through promotion of the so called sustainable forest management, both have never been seriously considered in the previous Congresses. The protection of the remaining forest is of paramount importance and PNoy needs to demonstrate his political will by addressing the inadequacies in forest protection measures and prioritizing a responsible forest legislation, which I hope he will present in his forthcoming State of the Nation Address during the opening of the 15th Congress of the Philippines.
Similarly, the rehabilitation of denuded timberlands awaits appropriate actions. The government has ventured into massive reforestation in the past, with funding support from loans in various international financial institutions, such as the Asian Development Bank, but it did not show any promising result. The rehabilitation of denuded timberlands is compulsory because they are part of larger watersheds, which play critical roles in ensuring our water security. PNoy, therefore, should make a clear policy statement on forest rehabilitation because aside from watershed it is also important in mitigating the impacts of natural calamities.
Equally important is the implementation of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts as an important component of ecological governance. Polluted water bodies and emissions beyond the allowable standards are ordinary sights, especially in major urban centers, that require immediate actions if we want to ensure our ecological survival. Issues and concerns on environment are so enormous and most of these cases rely on how the associated regulations are enforced and complied. Just like how the new President emphasized the “Wang-Wang” thing, the local and international conservation communities await him to declare his uncompromising stance against environment abuse and destruction. (This article was also published in the 12 July 2010 issue of the Visayan Daily Star in Bacolod City, Philippines)*
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